With a shake of his dreadlocks,
Hurkey motioned for me to sit down across from him at the table.
What do you want? he asked.
I want to know,
whats the future of New Orleans?
He handed me a
black cloth, knotted at the top. Hold this in your hands, he
This isnt about me,
I said. Just the city.
Hold it in your
hands, and feel it, Hurkey instructed. There were a number of items
bound in the cloth, but I couldnt distinguish what they were. OK,
open the knot, he said, and let everything fall on the
Out tumbled a
feather, a die, a few cowry shells and about a dozen chicken bones,
This is voodoo? I
Youd better believe
it, he said.
The following day,
in a restaurant about a mile away, I put the same question about
the future of the city to J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of
the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors
There are two
stories in New Orleans, he said. The first is about rebuilding the
post-World War II neighborhoods and the failures of government,
from the federal to the local level, to help people. The mainstream
media has been following that story closely. And it will take years
for the neighborhoods outside the core of the city to come
The other story is
about travel and tourism. The fact is that the New Orleans most
people love -- the French Quarter, the Garden District, other
neighborhoods along the river -- is intact and ready. But you have to be
realistic. When you have an event the magnitude of Katrina,
visitors dont automatically reappear. And for a number of months
after Katrina it was not a good time to visit anywhere in New
for a moment as a bowl of alligator soup was set in front of Perry.
He took a sip, gave a slight nod, and picked up where he had left
off. Travel and tourism is a perception-driven business, and for
months after we were ready for visitors, people were still seeing
the television file footage of the disaster.
If it will take
years for the residential areas to recover, I asked, wont those
images of destruction be shown for years? If travel and tourism is
built on perception, wont tourisms recovery be inextricably linked
to the recovery of the rest of the city?
I believe theres a
four-step transition period that will change those perceptions and
bring people back to New Orleans sooner, Perry said. The first step
happened with Mardi Gras and Jazz & Heritage Fest. Thousands of
people came here and found they could have a good time in New
The second step was
when the American Librarians Association had their convention here
in June. It was a success on every level. The librarians had a
great time, and the images of the refurbished convention center ...
replaced the images of the center from just after the
The third step is
happening right now -- the one-year anniversary of Katrina. More
than 1,000 requests for credentials have come in from the
mainstream media. Of course, theyll go and film in the residential
areas that havent been rebuilt, but theyll also see the tourist
areas for themselves. Its a watershed anniversary. People are now
ready to accept that they can return to New Orleans. Everyone has
had a year to get over the storm. They can exhale now.
Perry finished the
last spoonful of soup.
The fourth will
occur on Sept. 25, when Monday Night Football takes place at the
Superdome (the Atlanta Falcons vs. the New Orleans Saints). All the
world will see that those images from a year ago at the Superdome
have been replaced by people enjoying themselves. Enjoying
themselves at the Superdome.
Hurkey closed his
eyes, fingered a chicken bone, put it in his hand and touched his
fist to his heart a couple of times.
New Orleans is
going to be beautiful, he said. Better than ever. Because people
all around the world love this city, care about this
I told Perry I had
been walking around the French Quarter and, yes, it was intact, but
that alone didnt appear to erase Katrinas impact. Everyone I had
spoken with from New Orleans -- people who typically have a lot of contact
with tourists -- sooner or later began
talking about the storm. It started with the taxi driver from the
airport. And, I noted, its a fairly long drive from the airport to
the French Quarter.
Thats fine, Perry
said. Theyre not going to pretend everythings OK in their lives if
it isnt. It is different now. But theres a sense of shared
experience among the people who have stayed. The ones who have
remained are so committed to this city. They love New Orleans. And
theyre the ones visitors are going to encounter.
reading the bones but left his eyes closed and continued talking.
After that storm came through, I stood and threw beads down to the
people in the water, the police, the SWAT teams, the National
Guard. Because they always knew that this is what happens, this is
what you get in New Orleans, that people you dont even know throw
beads to you. I wanted to make sure they got that.
Are there enough
people left, I asked Perry, for tourist businesses to be staffed
There is an issue
with staffing, he acknowledged. But levels are now at a point where
any weaknesses are not visible to the front of the house, to the
guest. Weve got a real surprise in our pocket [with travel and
tourism]. It has lifted the hearts of everyone in the city. We were
there leading the recovery from the beginning, feeding and housing
the first responders. And we continue to lead it when thousands of
visitors head home, saying what a great city this is.
I asked him for a
more specific prediction about when travel and tourism will come
The meetings and
conventions business is essential to us, he said. We lost $3
billion in immediate cancellations after the storm. There was
In 2006, we will be
at 46% of the annual number of meetings we had before the storm.
Bookings for the first and the fourth quarter of 07 are already
very strong; the first quarter will be somewhere [around 85%], and
the final quarter is already at 90% of pre-Katrina bookings. We
expect to be at 100% by 2008.
Hurkey opened his
eyes. Next month, on the first full moon, fill your bathtub and put
in three tablespoons of sugar. Take a bath, and get out of the tub
backwards. It will sweeten your life.
He seemed to have
finished. I stood up.
Do one more thing,
will you? he asked. Say a prayer for me.
Perry did not ask
me to say a prayer for him, but he did have a request: Let Travel
Weekly readers know that New Orleans is ready for anyone they might
send his way.
Ill add that
recommending New Orleans right now will likely generate gratitude
from clients in a measure equivalent to that received by a
stockbroker who had recommended buying shares of Apple when it
seemed down and out.
In New Orleans
right now, you can get a table at Galatoires, K-Pauls, Emerils and
Cafe du Monde with only a short (if any) wait. You dont have to
worry about getting one of the 25 first-come, first-serve slots
each morning for the free National Park Service tour of the French
You can get
outstanding deals on rooms. (I stayed last week in a Riverview
Suite at the Hotel Monteleone for $149 a night.)
There are no lines
at the aquarium. You can easily get a seat at the blackjack and
poker tables in the casinos. You can even get into Preservation
Hall without an hours-long wait, though youll still have to tip a
little extra to get the Jazz Band to play When the Saints Go
In other words
-- with all due respect to Hurkey --
there are many, many ways to make life sweeter.